As the coronavirus has ravaged society, leveled the economy, and buckled systems, it has created devastating losses. The loss of lives is the hardest, but even more widespread is the loss of jobs, routines, familiarity, social interaction — and, during these religious holidays, beloved traditions.
Those losses trigger grief amid the anxiety, panic, terror, and the rest of the emotions we are experiencing at this strange time. The Inquirer sought out insights from those who are supporting communities during this time to hear how they’re helping people process their individual and collective grief.
Interviews by Kevin Riordan, Abraham Gutman, Elena Gooray, Erica Palan, and Sandra Shea.
Milian E. Rodriguez, funeral home owner
About 80% of the families we serve are very traditional. They want a traditional funeral, and the limitation of 10 people or less at the viewing is devastating to them. The churches are all closed for any event, including funerals. Some clergy are available to do a service at the funeral home, and some are not. That’s where the funeral director comes in.
When we go to a hospital where a family’s loved one has passed away, even if it’s not COVID, we have to wear personal protective equipment. Sometimes when the family sees us like that, they feel a coldness.
But the protection is for the safety of my staff and every family we serve. We all know what’s going on and what the consequences [of exposure to the virus] might be. That’s why most of the work now is by video conference and email.
“In the early ‘90s, when we had a funeral for someone with HIV, their family was still able to gather together and hug and cry together.”
It’s a new way of being personal. Even on video conferencing, I do feel the emotional presence. The family can see my face, my gestures, my body language. It’s not the same as in my office, but we still have that contact.
Many funeral homes are opting to hold the loved ones until the pandemic is over, because the loved one had requested a full funeral. But only one of our families has asked for that. They would rather place their loved one at peace now.
There is so much we are learning. We spend more time listening to the grieving families on the phone and following up with them.
I do think all of us are grieving. We’re very sad. We have lost a lot, and we are learning to appreciate life better and how to live the moment. We’re learning how not to wait until tomorrow, and to make that phone call to the cousin we only see at weddings and funerals.
Milian E. Rodriguez has been a licensed funeral director in Pennsylvania since 1990.
Lara Moretti, grief counselor
As someone who has worked with grieving families for 17 years, I would say a lot of people assume grief only happens when someone dies. They don’t necessarily realize that grief is a reaction to loss. It could be a loss of security, normalcy, or routine — and the reaction to that loss can be physical. There can be muscle tension, headaches, or trouble sleeping. It can be hard to concentrate, because we’re so much more alert.
“Grief comes in many forms, and it’s important to recognize the ways it can manifest itself."
With the pandemic, we have an unseen enemy. Just going to the grocery store can seem scary. It can feel very surreal, very dreamlike. When someone dies, we often ask ourselves, “How can this be happening?” It’s a very natural reaction. And so are the reactions people are experiencing to COVID-19.
It’s OK to have those feelings, but it can be uncomfortable to sit with them. It’s uncomfortable to feel out of control. So it’s important to think about the things you can control. Even if it’s as simple as making a list or setting a routine.
We should recognize that when we’re grieving, we don’t have as much energy for other things. But we can call someone we haven’t talked to in a while. We can do something that could bring us joy.
Lara Moretti, a licensed social worker certified in thanatology, has led the Gift of Life Donor program of Philadelphia’s family support services team for 17 years.
Chantay Love, gun-violence advocate
With [the coronavirus pandemic] happening, you have people who are experiencing layers and levels of grief in different aspects. People are losing their jobs. Losing the ability to hang out with friends, or go to a place of worship. You see how huge that is — your place of worship, especially for people of color, black and brown people. It was always the staple and it’s the strength that people used to drive their faith. Now you can’t go to the place, so how do you all engage in the spiritual journey?
“You see people walking around. They look dazed.”
You see people walking around. They look dazed. It looks like this overwhelming layer of grief. Because their whole world changed abruptly — and it changed with restrictions.
We ask families to tune out from social media for the day. The fear of tuning out is so large because they’re afraid that something’s happening. But sometimes you need to tune out so that you can tune in to you and your family. We don’t know how long this is going to be. We don’t know what our city or state or our country is going to look like. But it won’t be the same.
Chantay Love is the cofounder and programs director of E.M.I.R. Healing Center, a nonprofit that provides services and support to people affected by homicides.
Dan Wolfson, director at a children’s grief camp
When we’re sitting with the intensity of grief, we have to take care of ourselves. It doesn’t have to be something grand — maybe it’s just going for a walk and getting fresh air. Maybe you picked up some ingredients to bake something you like, or you’ve got some chocolate stashed away. These little things we can do to have some semblance of positive emotion are really important. I would remind people to find that balance of engaging with grief-related emotions, while taking space.
“When we’re sitting with the intensity of grief, we have to take care of ourselves.”
I think for some people, it is important to feel a sense of a shared or collective experience while dealing with their grief. [My colleagues and I] think a lot about how important community and support is, especially for kids as a big part of their learning. Adults have more coping skills, and language skills for developing a narrative around their experience. For children, it can be so important to learn those skills from one another.
Other people might need to make their world smaller right now, and that makes them feel safer. It's all about getting in touch with yourself and knowing what helps you feel safe and supported and grounded.
Dr. Dan Wolfson is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in grief and loss. He is the Mid-Atlantic region clinical director of Experience Camps for Grieving Children, and a supervising staff psychologist at Rennicke & Associates in downtown Manhattan.
Rev. Gerard Marable, pastor
I’m not hearing people talk about grieving. They aren’t using that language. People don’t necessarily grieve in the midst of something. I think people right now are just trying to survive. I hear a lot of my parishioners say,"I’m OK, I’m not coughing, I don’t have the virus. Everybody in my family is OK." I think that’s how people are contextualizing [the pandemic].
“We are in Lent and this particular ‘lent’ is going to last past Easter.”
What this calls for is a realness in our faith and our faith rituals, traditions, and teachings — a realness that we perhaps have never had when the country and the people are comfortable. We are in Lent, and this particular “lent” is going to last past Easter. The churches are closed, Easter will be muted, and “lent” is going to go on for a while.
Catholics understand Lent as a time of penance, of sacrifice, abstinence, fasting ... a time of prayer and acts of charity. In the past, we have chosen to do those things. Now, we have no choice. What we used to do out of freedom is now being imposed on us. The question is, Can you make that connection between all those things we used to do and what’s happening now? If we try to make everything as normal as possible, we’re going to miss the meaning of Lent, and Easter, and what’s going on.
Rev. Gerard Marable is co-pastor of Camden’s Sacred Heart Parish, which includes St. Bartholomew, St. Joan of Arc, and Sacred Heart churches.
John Fowler, hospice worker
We can no longer allow groups of family members to come into the [health-care] unit. There was no cap on the number of people who could visit before, whereas now it’s going to be two people per family member. That is really tough. I can’t imagine not being able to sit alongside my mother while she’s on her journey home.
“It’s time for the family to take care of each other and rebuild whatever relationships were lost.”
But our job is all about listening, especially to the families of patients. And [to listen well], we don’t try to compare the situations of patients. We don’t say, “Well, we’ve been there before.” It’s more about them getting off their chest what they need to be comfortable.
Every situation and every family is different. We also don’t assume family dynamics. A lot of times people who are grieving have been away for a while from their loved one who is sick. So, now they’re showing up and it gets tough, or there may be animosity within the family. We just explain to them this is a tough time, and once the loved one passes, it’s time for the family to take care of each other and rebuild whatever relationships were lost.
John Fowler is a certified home health aide in New Jersey working in hospice care.
Tsering Jurme, Buddhist community leader
Those of us brought up with Buddhist values have special beliefs and practices to deal with this nature of grief. Our teaching says that life is suffering. It forms the basis for the four noble truths. His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] and other masters teach us how to cope with grief and loss. Tibetans have a more mellow approach to grief. To cope, we have prayers and mantras to focus on what is going on in our minds and hearts and to keep peace.
“We all want happiness and peace.”
His Holiness often mentions this quote when we are in grief: “If there is a solution to a problem, why worry? There is a solution.
If there is no solution to a problem, why worry? There is no solution.”
This helps us to understand that worry is no solution to any problem, but makes you more weak and causes more problems. Another thing that helps is the Dalai Lama’s message of compassion and kindness. We all want happiness and peace. Doctors, nurses, researchers, scientists, and officials are doing everything to find the solution to this crisis and trying to help humanity to get rid of this virus. Be compassionate to each other. Pray and meditate for world peace.
Tsering Jurme is past president of and current fund-raiser for the Tibetan Association of Philadelphia.
Tasnim Sulaiman, therapist
Right now, everything is very surreal. We have to remind ourselves – and I’ve told clients to limit checking the news because it creates more fear and worry – when you notice the reality, you can psych yourself out. Folks may have heightened denial and numbness that extend the grief period, and they’re not getting the typical closure that exists from funerals and other rituals when everyone can come together.
“It’s important to stay as connected as possible."
It’s important to stay as connected as possible. If you can reach out to people experiencing grief, be creative. Contact a food delivery service to send something to someone’s house. Instead of asking, “What do you need?” — it’s hard for our brains to answer that during grief. So maybe just call and sit with that person.
We also have a unique opportunity right now to reflect on ourselves. We run from ourselves a lot, don’t want to be alone with our thoughts and feelings because what might come up is scary. But now we can’t run. There’s nowhere you can go. So now’s an opportunity to learn and face more things about yourself that you want to change, heal, and transform.
Tasnim Sulaiman is CEO of TazTalkTherapy.
Geri Newburge, rabbi
I personally am not labeling the emotions or the reactions people are having to the situation, but anxiety does seem to be the most prevalent feeling. In conversation I hear comparisons to 9/11 and to major incidents at synagogues, like in Pittsburgh.
“They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and we are in a foxhole.”
I am a rabbi because I want to be in community, and our community, along with others, is trying to make sure people maintain contact. The folks who are having the hardest time, so far, are those who have had losses that have nothing to do with the virus. People are unable to come together for funerals and for shiva. No more than 10 people are allowed at the cemetery, and shivas are not being done, except by Zoom or some other social media platform. The Jewish authorities have given the thumbs up to that, because preservation of life is the higher value.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and we are in a foxhole. We are all struggling to find some kind of spirituality that fits the bill for the era of coronavirus.
Rabbi Geri Newburge was ordained in 2003 and has served at the Main Line Reform Temple Beth Elohim for five years.
Jessie Jarmon, counselor to medical staff
There’s an emotional expenditure, just on your average day, that comes along with providing care to very sick people. Now you’re adding COVID-19 into the mix. Continuing to provide compassionate, consistent care is just that much harder. What it looks like, mostly, is just anxiety.
“For some, it’s like ‘I just want it to hit already’ because the anxiety about it coming feels intolerable.”
There’s a lot of anticipatory grief. You’re dealing with a patient, you may feel a sense of sadness or grief about this patient, and then also wondering, Am I or someone I know going to be here next week in the same condition?
They see the tidal wave coming. For some, it’s like “I just want it to hit already” because the anxiety about it coming feels intolerable. Loss is something that everybody is experiencing now, whether you work in health care or not. This is what makes this so unusual. We’re all in the same boat — but health-care workers are the most at risk.
On your average day, when people don’t have opportunities to process grief, it does not bode well for them later in life. How much time and energy are [health workers] going to have to even process grief when they are just trying to get through? I worry that is going to feel like a luxury they can’t afford right now because they have to function.
Jessie Jarmon, MSW, LCSW, has provided staff support services to Penn Medicine employees since 2014.
Samara Fritzsche, career counselor
We see clients from all walks to life, from GEDs to Ph.D.s. Regardless of what industry they are in, their mental health is affected by being out of work and having to struggle financially. People who were already dealing with feeling depressed and somewhat isolated because of being out of work are even more isolated now.
“Not knowing how long this will last is overwhelming for people.”
There’s tremendous anxiety about getting basic needs met, with food insecurity being a major issue. People who are out of work are worried about not being able to safely get food, and they’re worried about the cost of food.
I was on a Zoom chat with a client who is alone and very isolated, and we decided we would watch Jeopardy! together later. We’re professionals, but we’re also trying to be there on a whole other level right now because people are so isolated. We are doing things outside the scope of what we traditionally do because we have to get people the resources they need.
Samara Fritzsche is a career counselor and licensed social worker who has been on the staff of JEVS Human Services, a Philadelphia nonprofit, for 15 years.
Michael Cohen, death and dying professor
In my class, we talk about how different religions approach death and dying rituals. Those rituals are complicated by coronavirus. All religions handle death very differently, but one thing they all have in common is that they focus on some forced community. I think this situation is very poignant in that it’s not letting that community happen for fear of giving the virus to other people.
“All religions allow you to grieve, but they also often have an end date, a time where the grieving is supposed to end.”
For example, in Judaism, there is a prayer that is supposed to be said after a person has died and repeated regularly for at least a month after the death called the Mourner’s Kaddish. In order to say it, you need a minyan of 10 people. With social distancing, you can’t get those 10 people in a room. Can you make a minyan over Zoom? Another example is how Catholics do wakes, where praying for the deceased brings the community together. Rituals like this, before COVID, forced people to come together – even when they might want to do nothing but stay home right and be in their grief. That coming together can be a really important thing.
All religions allow you to grieve, but they also often have an end date, a time where the grieving is supposed to end. Oftentimes there is community involved in that, too. I think that can be a positive thing for people dealing with grief.
Michael Cohen is a graduate student working toward his Ph.D. in Temple’s department of religion. He is currently teaching a course on death and dying.